The Many Masks of modern art

Good, solid, straightforward paintings of the ''good life'' have always been in relatively short supply. And especially so in times such as ours, when painterly innovation and extremism are in vogue. Furthermore, what little of such painting does exist today is often ''old fashioned'' or illustrational, or blatantly imitative of the Old Masters.

It's not so much a mattter of talent as of focus. The older painters often remember the past and its values a bit too clearly and exclusively. And the younger ones generally have ''better'' things to do. We seldom, as a result, find good contemporary works depicting a comfortable and dignified way of life painted in styles not already out of date at the time of the 1913 Armory Show.

I've never quite understood why this should be, why painting the ''good life'' has challenged so few of our better artists these past 60 or 70 years. We've had no end of excellent artists pushing back painting's technical and formal frontiers, portraying social issues and injustices, advocating political reform, or probing life's deeper mysteries. But only a small handful, including Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, and Fairfield Porter, have seen fit to celebrate the simpler, everyday pleasures of life.

It could be a matter of social conscience, or Modernism's insistence that art's role is primarily exploratory or formal. Or it could be that today's painters are so frantically competitive that their styles are too tense and nervous for anything quite so relaxed and pleasant.

But whatever the reason, it has deprived us of a kind of painting I for one have always enjoyed, and that painters as diverse as Vermeer, Renoir, Dufy, and Grandma Moses enjoyed creating.

There is no reason art should avoid expressions of peace, serenity, and pleasure, and focus its attention on the tragic, serious, and painful aspects of life; or see itself primarily as an arena for formal experimentation. Art is too broad and all-encompassing for such narrow perceptions of its realities - even in such a turbulent period as ours.

I'm all for facing up to, and dealing with, the crucial and serious issues of our day. But I'm also very much in favor of savoring and appreciating the best life has to offer. If life were only a matter of absolutes or ultimates, we wouldn't have a reason to be born. But we do. A span of years for experiencing, learning, and understanding is given us. And we would be utter, life-denying fools if we ignored the significance or richness of that gift in favor of a rigid, dogmatic, black-and-white perception of truth - either in life or in art.

The gentle touch, the nuance, the subtle gray areas between extremes, and the deep, quiet appreciation of the textures and details of living are all part of life's realities and truths. And of our full understanding of who and what we are. Those who perceive life primarily as a matter of extremes or absolutes miss its point as much as the person who buys bookends without books misses the point of literature.

Too much of today's art resembles a flat pebble skipping over a pond and only touching the water every ten feet or so. It may move with great speed and be going in the right direction, but it misses a great deal of what lies between ''here'' and ''there.''

We are fortunate, however, to have a few excellent American artists who do manage to give form to the colors, textures, and nuances of everyday living. We may not pay as much ''serious'' attention to them as to the more intense or purely formal creators among us, but they do exist. While they tend to be ''conservative'' in style, their work does not look dated or dull (except to the passionate devotees of the avant-garde), largely, I suspect, because they put life and the larger realities of art before style and fashion.

Chief among them is Andrew Wyeth, who will, I'm certain, be given his proper due once the art world really looks at his work instead of dismissing it out of hand as little more than high-class illustration. He is one of our best living American painters, and it's high time we realized it.

Not far behind are Jane Freilicher (who celebrates life and living with a verve and flair seldom seen these past 30 years in American art), Nell Blaine, Jane Wilson, Miriam Schapiro, Herman Rose, and (increasingly) Joseph Raffael.

Among several others is one who's been around a long time. John Heliker has won the respect of many who like their painting subtle and lyrical, and who prefer to see their favorite artists mellow and grow with the years rather than leap from one style to another every decade or so.

Heliker's paintings bridge abstraction and realism, and exist at the precise point where worldly fact and painterly magic fuse and become one. They are both true to life and gently poetic, and offer us a wonderfully subtle, painterly bouquet of exquisite silvers and grays, delicate pinks, browns, and blues, and vibrantly alive touches and patches of the hotter colors and more somber tones.

His is a still, muted, and exquisitely coordinated world. Forms and colors interlock with the quiet inevitability of jigsaw puzzle pieces falling into place. It is all a matter of checks and balances. Nothing is permitted to violate the subtle adjustments between drawing, color, mass, and movement. If a subject's head and hand call attention to themselves, they are left partially unfinished. If an area of harsh green intrudes upon fragile pinks or silvers, it is softened or transformed into another color. And this is done even if the area of green represents grass.

Every inch of the canvas is of equal importance. There are no ''dead'' areas, no sections or details that haven't received his fullest attention. What appears to be ''empty'' sky in the left background of a painting, for instance, may actually be a crucial slab of gray-blue placed there to balance precisely a dark green in the right foreground, and a cluster of reds and browns a few inches to the left.

The end result of these delicate adjustments and balances is an art of exquisite harmony in which subtleties and nuances play as important a role as things of a more definite and positive nature. Life and living are celebrated quietly and with a profound sense of appreciation.

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